Contribution by Dr Catherine Rita Volpe, Dr Kristy O’Neill, Associate Professor Ingrid Harrington, Stephen Grono, and Dr Rachael Adlington

How can UNE as a tertiary provider create a sense of community for our students? 

This is a question that seems to be at the heart of recent discussions at State and National levels on student retention.  In these discussions, there also seems to be an increased use of a certain catch phrase:  sense of belonging. Ensuring our students feel valued, connected, and have a sense of belonging to the UNE community is paramount; however, for those of us teaching, there is often less consideration given to our own senses of belonging with students and the broader UNE community within the online milieus. For those educators who do feel a sense of belonging in these online learning spaces, what are they doing to achieve this? 

In a reflection on the differences between online teaching versus face-to-face education, Dr Catherine Rita Volpe says: 

Since joining the UNE community, these are questions I have closely pondered as a Lecturer in the School of Education.  In earlier career chapters, I was a secondary school teacher where I ‘performed’ a clearly defined role of what it means to be a teacher every day. My students came to know who I was as an educator, my idiosyncrasies, and my humour. It was through my students’ understanding of me on a personal level that allowed me to define my teacher identity. I felt valued and understood. I felt like I belonged.” 

“Like many academics, joining the UNE community necessitated that I reinvent my identity as a teacher in the online teaching space.

The Commencing Student Success Project (CSSP) has provided great insight into how the use of videos as an instructive tool can not only contribute to students’ sense of community but also help educators feel a sense of belonging.  A few of the main elements of the CSSP are focused on the creation of media with the aim of unit coordinators having a presence in the unit.  Feedback from students has been very positive about the use of videos to welcome students to units, explain assessment requirements, provide weekly overviews, and assessment feedback videos.   In the following sample of responses from School of Education unit coordinators, they indicate that the videos have helped to increase their sense of belonging to the UNE community, as well as supporting an  enhanced understanding of their identity as online educators:                                                                                                                                      

Completing the videos made me really feel present in the unit. It was far more personal, and I felt like a real player in the unit, not just the UC. I was sharing who I really was with the students, instead of hiding behind audio only. It was a bit confronting but once I got into it, I was really pleased with the outcome. (UC 1) 

Any type of video made me feel the strongest sense of belonging as it best modelled traditional teaching whereby you can engage in relationship building and effective engagement of your students. In some cases, the videos were a good talking point that made online learning more personable and allowed students to feel as though they already knew me. Easier for them to ask questions or reach out for help as needed. Seeing my body language and tone of voice helped to translate written only feedback later…  It looked as though someone was home on Moodle and allowed the site to be less 2D.  (UC 2)  

Online students stated, “They know me” (UC 3)  

Videos provided a way to be a face to the person behind the unit. It felt more personal and more like a real classroom with a real teacher.  (UC 4)  

You can tell a lot about a person from the way s/he talks, smiles, jokes around, has a laugh, explains material, uses anecdotes and I think doing videos.  My students got to know me.  By displaying yourself in a video, you are opening yourself up to your students. The difference in my teaching from a few years and this year is massive. A few years, I was hiding behind a screen. No one knew who I was, and I am sure this impacted the students’ own sense of belonging to the University. (UC 5) 

Upon review, we can see a stark difference between teaching videos created a few years ago and the ones created this year.  We are certain students can see our heightened confidence as we became more comfortable behind the screen.

Dr Catherine Rita Volpe reports: “I can say that I have come out of my shell, as my idiosyncrasies have begun to sneak through in the videos. I sense I am clearly developing my sense of identity as an educator in the online teaching space.” 

We understand through communication with our students that they feel an increased sense of community as they get to know us. In turn, we feel valued and understood by our students, and our identities as teachers at UNE are becoming clear.